Cover Story : A Selection of Twelve Remarkable Books
Shaheen Akhtar’s Beloved Rongomala (a novel)
Beloved Rongomala (Sokhi Rongomala in Bengali) is the second novel written by prolific author, Shaheen Akhtar, who is simultaneously a novelist and a short story writer of Bengali literature. The book should be an enjoyable addition to the reading list of the readers. It is a translated work and a valuable addition to Bangladesh’s literature in translation. The novel has been translated from Bengali to English by Shabnam Nadiya and edited by Arunava Sinha. The book is published by Bengal Lights Books, Dhaka.
Readers look into the eighteenth century zamindari system in Bengal and the novel informs the history of samanta region consisting with Bhula, Sindurkait, Babupur, Dewanganj and other surrounding areas. People from different communities, from upper-class Brahmin to lower-class Mog, were living in this riverine, wet and strange region. The novel presents not only the author’s imagination but also a legend of Noakhali region that is situated in the south-eastern part of Bangladesh. The book written after local traditions makes the characters livelier and contains a real picture of zammindari system practiced by the rulers of Bengal. During the British colonial era zamindars were the landholders of separated areas and they were involved in collecting revenue for the monarchy.
In the novel the author focuses on history and shows Raj Chandra Chowdhury’s zamindari at Babupur and most of the time he is in relationships with women. Though Raj Chandra has a wife named Phuleswari, he keeps a mistress named Rongomala who has a magical power to captivate men. Rongomala, known as Rongi, was born in a low caste Nor family known for singing, dancing and theater. The author shows that “as soon as she sat down poem after poem emerged from her pen” (171). Raj Chandra has chosen her for her beauty and artistic qualities. He takes gold and jewels and empting caskets, spends a lot of money and gives expensive ornaments to Rongi. Though he is not Rongi’s husband, she loves him and knows that she won’t be able to tie him to her sari. Chowdhury’s uncle robs his kingdom Babupur and the place enmeshes due to his carelessness and his uncle’s greediness.
The novel focuses on the issues of class, caste and gender. Akhtar shows not only men and women of upper-class society but also lower-class society. Phuleswari’s chief slave is Heera, who is called a dashi (servant), combs her hair, slathers oil on her palm, rubs her scalp roughly and warms it with oil. When the queen sleeps Heera carries the maynah outside. When the bowl of chickpeas slips from her hands and falls into ground, Black Moon, the bird mayna squeals and curses Heera as, “Bandi! Bandi!” (23). In Bengali tradition bandi means maidservant. Akhtar shows that even a bird calls her a slave. Despite their confinement the women of the novel are brave as Heera possesses a strong mentality. Heera’s maternal grandmother was raped by a Portuguese pirate. It does not matter how much powerful women are, all are subjugated in that patriarchal society.
Shaheen Akhtar is a feminist writer who writes about a male-dominated society in the novel. Women from both upper class and lower class struggle as some of them are strong and some are unfortunate to command any respect. It is not a matter what type of a husband Raj Chandra is, how he brought Rongi to his home, it is the responsibility of his wife to take care of him. Rongomala is from a lower-caste Hindu family, who, defying traditions, wants to rise above caste. She is also known as Rongi in Raj Chandra Chowdhury’s zamindari. Rongomala’s presence turns the life of Phuleshwari Rai as Akhtar writes, “Raj Chandra had picked up Rongomala and was carrying her into another room. Their laughter was like undammed water, they were laughing so hard it seemed Rongi might fall from his arms. Phuleswari shut her eyes” (31). The fact that a husband develops extramarital relationships with other women is a torture for a wife, still in 18th century patriarchal society a wife had no power to raise their voices. Though Rongi knows that Raj Chandra will not stay by her side forever, she is ambitious and wants to rise above fate and circumstances. Raj Chandra, his mother Sumitra, his wife Phuleswari and others are directly affected and irritated by Rongi’s ambition.
Raj Chandra’s wife, a young queen, does not have any children and she passes time with loving birds. She cares for her birds more than she cares for her servants and slaves. Raj Chandra’s mother Sumitra, a powerful woman, tells everyone that as her daughter-in-law does not have any children, she has no value. In a patriarchal society husband, mother-in-law and other relatives negatively treat a barren woman. Readers show love and sympathy to Phuleswari who cries for her unfortunate situation, fall and depression. The main subject of the novel is centered with the unfortunate event of the killing of Rongomala. The author shows that the assassination of the mistress is very graceful and dignified of a minor king. Rongomala’s body turns into ashes and Raj Chandra’s heart and soul burn just like her dead body. Akhtar shows Raj Chandra’s intense love for Rongomala.
Shabnam Nadia’s translation of the text is admirable; she freely captures the essence of the story with linguistic proficiency. The translation is so lucid and smooth that readers can get the taste of original writing easily. In the original text, there are many traditional Bengali dialects, idioms and phrases, and the translator tries to translate them artistically though the task is difficult. It is very interesting to read the translated poems and songs which were originally written in formal or informal, oral or written tradition. There are some words which are closely related with Bengali culture and the translator has retained the words of the source language such as bhang, Baandi!, zamindari, sindoor, shubhodrishti, harmad, koshas, ghagra, sikka, vaishnavi, raskali, tilaka, kopta, kaliya, sanatana, shyama, naiyor, rudrakkha, alta, jatrapala, shabri, tiki, kuthi, hujoor, kadamba, meghdombur, khol-kartaal, haveli, champak, nageshwar, narus, sandesh, pithas, pasha, luchi, durba, korai, churidar, etc. Akhtar also shows that some people of Bengal were traditionally involved with Jatra and pala like Nimai Sanyas, Man Bhanjan and Ram Leela etc. which were a part of recreation for all people in Bengali culture.
In Beloved Rongomala, Shaheen Akhtar reflects on history, experiences and love and the accomplished translated version is capable of retaining the essence of the original. The novelist portrays the psyche of all characters skillfully, especially the identity of women. She also wonderfully portrays the lifestyle of the people from different communities who are living together without any conflict. The tragic consequence of Rongomala makes the situation gloomy, but the author’s positive outlook toward life leads to the glorious and unique Bengali culture. Drawing on history and tradition, the novel provides an exploration of performance through all characters that perform in Jatra and Pala. Beloved Rongomala is an important novel by Shaheen Akhtar, and it represents Bengali culture and tradition, along with the gap existing among people of different communities and classes in society. Reading the novel is indeed an enriching experience.
Rama Islam is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Metropolitan University, Sylhet